Peter Fleming on Toys

Hi everyone. I’m away this week, so have given writing duties over to Peter Fleming. He has very kindly written some of his thoughts on toys and his experiences playing and working with them as one of the pioneers of British children’s TV. Thanks, Peter!

Hello there, my young friends!

Well, well, well, toys, toys, toys. Is there anything that has brought so much joy to children as toys? The answer is a qualified yes – but only in the case of those children who had access to BBC Children’s television programmes. As such, foreign children and the children of parents who avoided paying the licence fee had to make do with just toys.

I had the opposite problem, and was lucky that the children’s home where I grew up did have television, as there were frankly no toys to be had in the entire building! Instead, the very earliest children’s television fuelled my imagination, and I fashioned my own toys out of whatever I could find. Rags, milk bottles, handfuls of dust – you name it, I came up with a character and a story for it! These ended up inspiring programmes I made during my own career. The rag I played with grew into Charlie, the Ragged Ghost (1965). My favourite handful of dust, which I kept in the corner below my bed, safe from the cleaners ever reaching it, went on to become The Ghost Made of Dust (1966). And who could forget Julie, the Bottle-Shaped Ghost (1975)?

Another thing I tried to do was fashion programmes set within whole worlds of toys to fire up the imaginations of the next generation down who might be going without them. Tilly’s Toy Factory (1967) showed a young girl making all the strangest toys she could think of, helped by the elderly toymakers and woodcarvers who lived in the factory she visited every week. We never named these craftsmen or explained their circumstances in order to keep a sense of mystery, and more importantly, to encourage children to be nicer to strangers, an area where we felt society was consistently failing. Entirely because of that point (although I was later told only partially because of that), the series lasted only a few weeks.

Following that, The Museum of Fun (1968) touched on similar themes with young Johnny’s regular visits to be shown round an ancient toy museum by Miss Harker. As an educational element, the toys were often host to the spirit of whatever child had played with them back in history, and would describe the old world around them. Later, of course, Miss Harker herself was revealed to be a large, Edwardian puppet, come to life! I now look back on the programme as a wonderful combination of my duel interest in toys and ghosts, and it was fondly remembered by audiences too, eventually topping Channel 4’s The 100 Most Inadvertently Sinister Kids’ TV Shows of All Time in 2003.

Best of all, Uncle Kenneth’s Doll’s House (1969-71) depicted a little girl who was sick of her boring, stuffy parents, and wished she could live in her peculiar uncle’s doll’s house instead – only for the wish to come true! Surrounded by now life-size wooden and fabric dolls, and trapped in an existence that ran like clockwork, she was at first frightened by their mechanical movement and muffled voices, but soon grew to enjoy the lifestyle, eventually becoming a doll herself in the final episode. I intended it as a way to make my daughter less scared of her own doll’s house, but if anything it had the opposite effect. Trouble was, the programme was so successful that I had to ignore her feelings and keep going! If only I’d realised the effect that would have a few years later, I might have thought again!

Nowadays, I find my boyhood yearning for toys to play with still comes to the surface. As I float about on my little raft, rags and empty milk bottle drift past and bring back fond memories, and I come up with new ideas from other bits and pieces I find too! Who knows, perhaps one day audiences might find themselves enjoying The Voyage of the Shopping Trolley, or Phillip, the Talking Stick, or Come Back, Sophie, Please Come Back! All those have been inspired in just the last couple of weeks by things I’ve sailed by or caught myself shouting out in my sleep – so you see, there’s still a whole world of possibility!

Best wishes,

Peter

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